It used to be, if you wanted a summer job in Chicago, you went to your alderman’s office. He gave you a letter, which you had to present to the woman in charge of lifeguards at Oak Street Beach, or the guy who ran a trash-collecting crew at the park district.
They weren’t big jobs, but they offered kids an important life lesson: If you want to get anywhere in this town, you need a political sponsor. Some of those young people learned that lesson well, cultivating their political connections until they became judges, police captains and mayoral chiefs of staff.
I don’t know where Toni Preckwinkle worked the summer between her junior and senior years, but I know she didn’t get the job from an alderman. Preckwinkle grew up in the good-government state of Minnesota, where there are no aldermen. That’s why it’s easy for her to saw off the first rung on the patronage ladder, by getting rid of the President’s Office of Employment Training. She didn’t step on it to start her career on the public payroll.
Preckwinkle is cutting the office’s staff by 40 percent, ending its oversight of trainees and renaming it Cook County Works. For the past 16 years, the program has been under the control of the nepotistic Stroger family, which believed in giving a well-connected kid a hand up. As a result, according to WBEZ, “a summer youth jobs program run by POET is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation. Last year a former POET financial manager pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $100,000 in public funds. Between 2003 and 2008, POET was forced to return $8.4 million in funding to the state due to accounting irregularities.”
Under Todd Stroger, the office was headed by state Rep. Art Turner, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor last year. The $110,000 job allowed Turner to increase his government pension. Like Stroger, Turner also believed in helping the well-connected. His old seat in the General Assembly is now occupied by a young man named Art Turner Jr. To replace Turner, Preckwinkle hired attorney Karin Norington-Reaves.
“You know, I think POET was one of the places where people who had political connections were placed without regard to their competence,” Preckwinkle said at a press conference. “So she had a lot of difficulty when she came in.”
Norington-Reaves’s pedigree includes jobs with Teach for America in California, and the Maryland Attorney General’s office. The best people to end patronage are people who don’t owe their careers to patronage.
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